Hamilton County Begins To Reconcile A Shameful Klan Past

The following portion from the article, Hamilton County Begins To Reconcile A Shameful Klan Past, by Casey Kenley was originally published in the IndianapolisMonthly.com on June 11, 2020, and features IU Press author James Madison and his forthcoming book from Indiana University Press, The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland. Available October 2020 wherever books are sold.

How Ku Klux Klan membership cards from the 1920s remained out of sight for almost 100 years.

On February 12, 2020, Jessica Petty climbed a narrow flight of stairs to the office of the Hamilton County Historical Society and Museum on Noblesville’s Courthouse Square to retrieve two faded boxes and a manila envelope. The president of the small organization paused to call Diane Nevitt, a longtime board member and volunteer. Nevitt confirmed that she was picking up the right materials: membership cards and receipts identifying 1,164 men who were members of the Hamilton County Ku Klux Klan between 1923 and 1926. Petty placed the boxes in the backseat of her car, cleared snow from the windshield, and pointed her GPS to the Indiana Historical Society.

At IHS, Petty handed over the Klan papers and cards to vice president of archives and library Suzanne Hahn. The senior director of conservation, Ramona Duncan-Huse, quickly transferred a portion to a special freezer that kills mold, which can further harm the papers. Conservators readied the collection for public access, vacuuming dust and lingering mold spores, gently cleaning sullied membership cards with organic solvents before archiving the collection.

The records had sat in the Noblesville office relatively undisturbed since 1995. That’s when they were discovered and handed over to the Hamilton County Historical Society, whose board decided to secret them away amid national media attention that cast a harsh light on Hamilton County’s past. David Heighway, the Hamilton County historian and former Hamilton County Historical Society president who came under the most fire for the 1995 decision, concedes that mistakes were made when the group decided to conceal the records. “We had not talked to the black population, which is who we should have talked to as well,” he says.

Earlier this year, that same organization voted to reverse course and gift the records to the Indiana Historical Society. In doing so, they made it possible for the public to finally access the collection and read the names, exposing unwitting families of deceased Klan members to stigma.

The plan was for the collection to be made available once preparation was complete, with a target date in April 2020. But the COVID-19 health crisis has delayed the reckoning, and the Klan collection from Hamilton County remains inaccessible to all but a small handful in a large storage room lined with metal shelves among thousands of articles, maps, and photos in acid-free folders and boxes—a painful chapter of Indiana history that remains partially untold and fully unresolved.

In the spring of 1995, Don Roberts opened what some might consider a Pandora’s box. He was clearing out a barn behind an old house in downtown Noblesville he had purchased in an estate sale. In a corner was a steamer trunk. Inside, he found white Ku Klux Klan hoods, sashes, and a small electric cross.

But even more significant were the names of Hamilton County men who had been members of the KKK in the ’20s. On ivory cards stained brown along the edges, elegant signatures indicated their allegiance to the Klan, to uphold the aspirational promise to be “of unquestionable character and … loyal American citizens.” He found more names on sheets of creased, beige paper and among a dozen stacks of saltine-sized membership-dues receipts, each held together with a rusty staple.

Roberts, who died in 2017, could have walked away. Instead, the U.S. Navy veteran and retired teacher shared his discovery with then Hamilton County historian Joe H. Burgess, who pored over the records and transcribed the names—including that of his father and two of Roberts’s uncles—before he passed away in 2018.

The materials eventually made their way to the Hamilton County Historical Society, and word of the collection’s existence soon leaked. The Noblesville Daily Ledger news editor Gregg Montgomery asked David Heighway, who was the director of the historical society, to show him the list of names. Heighway refused the request to head off a potential witch hunt.

On May 30, the Ledger published a column by Montgomery titled “Historical society will make Klan records public,” a headline that jumped the gun by 25 years. In the piece, Montgomery broke the news that the records existed and reported that the historical society would “offer copies” of them to the public the following month. Locals reached out to Heighway expressing concern about revealing skeletons in their families’ closets.

A follow-up story two days later reported that, actually, the historical society was discussing how the records would be handled. Rumors circulated about possible destruction of the documents. Heighway received calls from African Americans in the community pressing him for answers. On June 19, the Ledger’s editorial board urged the historical society to release the records.

Heighway had thought the historical society would quietly accept and eventually release the records. Instead, he found himself in crisis communications mode. In addition to local media, the Los Angeles TimesThe New York TimesTampa Bay TimesNewsweekThe Telegraph of London, and the BBC wanted to know what the 15-member board was going to do with the Klan collection.

Although typical contributions to the historical society, such as family photos or military uniforms, don’t require input from the board, the sensitivity of this gift called for back-and-forth discussions and a vote. Heighway says that his group fully understood the historical significance, and if they had been able to quietly accept the records, they likely would have been made available to the public immediately. But, he says, the “media circus” made that difficult. They worried that some reporters would use the list to track down Klan descendants and “get somebody to have a fit on camera” when confronted with the past.

A scrum of reporters gathered outside the museum in mid-July to hear the board’s decision. Heighway announced that only scholars doing serious research could see the records, but no names could be published. Genealogy buffs or people curious to find out if they had a family member on the list could inquire about a specific person, but they weren’t allowed to see the records. They were simply informed if their ancestor was among the names.

The historical society’s decision was unanimous, and in an editorial in the Ledger on July 12, Heighway wrote: “Our primary concern has been for county residents. We want to know what impact this might have on them. The list of names will be of no use to the casual researcher because it is meaningless.”

The records remained in the dark—until 23 years later, an act of racism brought them back into the spotlight.

Over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in January 2018, a seven-second video showing a 17-year-old Noblesville High School student draped in a Nazi flag went viral on social media. The teen shouted racial slurs into a megaphone on the grounds of Forest Park in Noblesville, violating no laws.

Several days later, NHS principal Jeff Bryant called on parents to have serious conversations with their families, neighbors, and friends about hate shared via social media, asking them to become “part of the solution.”

On February 27, 2018, Noblesville Schools Superintendent Beth Niedermeyer went one step further, announcing the launch of a public education series centered on the power of diversity and inclusion. This was the founding of the Noblesville Diversity Coalition.

The new group put together a plan for how they would educate the community. Through their planning, they continued to revisit questions the historical society had avoided. As they considered different ways to bring more awareness of cultural and racial diversity to the community, they looked to the past and how people construed their history.

“We just completely gloss over many of the things that are sort of negative, particularly when it comes to race,” says coalition member Bryan Glover.

Indeed, there are feel-good stories. In 1835, free blacks of mixed heritage migrated to Hamilton County to escape deteriorating conditions in the South and established Roberts Settlement. The settlers, mostly from North Carolina and Virginia, sought better opportunities with greater freedom and fewer racial barriers, made possible in part by friendly white Hoosier neighbors. And in 1925, a Hamilton County jury convicted Indiana Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson for the rape and murder of an Irvington schoolteacher—a somewhat remarkable feat given the local level of Klan membership at the time. The decision led to the eventual demise of the Klan’s weighty political and social influence in the state.

But Glover says those events, while important, don’t present a full and accurate picture of Hamilton County’s racial history.

Glover was born and raised in Noblesville, and is one of the 4 percent of African Americans (11,845 total) who call the county home. Following a Diversity Coalition event in 2018 that celebrated local school students’ cultures—Russian, Rwandan, Vietnamese—Glover was reminded how the community doesn’t always tell its entire story.

After the presentation, he started talking to David Heighway about the issue, citing the hidden KKK records as an example. Glover argued that although burning crosses in yards and midnight raids weren’t prevalent in Indiana communities, 444 African Americans lived in Hamilton County in 1920 when the KKK was building political and social steam. Their lives were not unaffected.

When Glover suggested it was time to reconsider opening the KKK records to the public, Heighway agreed and brought up the idea to the board. Glover attended the following board meeting and further discussed the issue, representing himself, not the Diversity Coalition.

During the next meeting, the Klan records were the main topic of discussion among the board members. At the time, Jessica Petty was an intern at the Indiana Archives and Records Administration, the agency that manages governmental records, and a Hamilton Country Historical Society volunteer who frequently attended board meetings because of her love of local history. The Klan collection piqued her interest and she offered to spend more time on it, helping facilitate collaboration between the historical society and the Noblesville Diversity Coalition.

She researched how other institutions handle these sorts of records and presented three initial options to the historical society. First, the group could keep the records and open them to visitors in the library. People worried this scenario would make it difficult to do the collection of primary source documents justice, and unsupervised individuals could easily steal or deface the collection. Second, the records could be scanned and put on a website or some other digital repository, but this would be costly to do securely and could leave out users without access to a computer or the internet. Third, they could do nothing.

Old worries resurfaced. What if someone obtains the list and just publishes it in the paper? What if someone’s home is vandalized because his or her last name appeared on the list? How can we protect people from misusing or destroying the list? They didn’t want that responsibility, so when the idea of handing over the records to the Indiana Historical Society was proposed, it took hold.

“People were really intrigued and excited that it would be protected better physically,” Petty says. At the Indiana Historical Society, members of the public would request to see records and then check them out to view in a supervised reading room. Petty also suggested that they develop programming around the gift to make it more than a gesture, with the Diversity Coalition helping answer questions about why the decision was being made.

In February 2020, the board voted on what to do with the controversial Klan collection. This time, they decided to hand over the records to the Indiana Historical Society, making them available for anyone to see.

While COVID-19 has delayed when the records will be open to view, there could be pent-up interest. Indiana Klan history intrigues Hoosiers. Hamilton County’s racial history is complicated. In the mid-1920s, Indiana held the distinction of having the most widespread Klan foothold in the nation, and many Hamilton County residents gladly joined the robust “Klavern 42.”

During Indiana’s bicentennial in 2016, historian James Madison put thousands of miles on his car touring the state to address groups and share stories from Indiana’s 200 years of statehood, but it was a period lasting only about five years that mesmerized crowds. A preeminent Indiana historian and the Thomas and Kathryn Miller Professor of History Emeritus at Indiana University, Madison says that after his talks concluded, the questions asked most were about Indiana’s relationship to the Klan. That experience pushed him into writing his latest book, The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland, due out October 2020.

At its height in the 1920s, one-quarter to one-third of native-born white males in Indiana were Klan members. Hamilton County, with an estimated 35 percent in 1925, was one of the strongest Klan bastions in Indiana.

One of the most common misconceptions about the Klan in Indiana, he says, was that it was comprised of uneducated rubes. A reporter from New York called them “the great unteachable,” ignorant ne’er-do-wells, terms that more accurately apply to members of today’s scary, unorganized white supremacy groups. The Klan of the 1920s included “good people, normal people,” Madison says. They were middle-class family men, ministers, Quakers, teachers, farmers, lawyers, pharmacists, and city and county officials.

Read the full article Hamilton County Begins To Reconcile A Shameful Klan Past, by Casey Kenley at IndianapolisMonthly.com.